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Overall Rating
4.19

Awesome: 38.89%
Worth A Look50%
Average: 5.56%
Pretty Bad: 2.78%
Total Crap: 2.78%

3 reviews, 18 user ratings


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Assassination of Richard Nixon, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A terrifying and touching look at an American Everyloser"
5 stars

It is common enough for people on the fringes of society to somehow feel alienated from their surroundings and angry over their sense of disenfranchisement. Some people combat this with alcohol to blot out these sensations, others form websites or newsletters in order to communicate their ideas with others who feel the same way and others just bottle up their frustrations and go about their daily business. A sad few, however, are unable to reconcile these feelings and wind up doing terrible things to themselves or others in an effort to right what they perceive to be the wrongs around them and to allow themselves to take the spotlight for once. There have been many films about such people–the most famous is certainly Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”–but most of those have failed because they tend to focus more on the acts themselves than on the person behind them and what drove them to such extremes. “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is one exception to the rule–it chronicles the story of a man whose inability to cope with the world around him and the demons within him drove him to one last desperate act but it is more interested in his behavior than in his actions. The result is one of the most fascinating depictions of such madness since . . . well, since “Taxi Driver.”

The very premise of the film sounds so far-fetched and absurd that many people may walk into the theater assuming that it is simply a work of complete fiction that just happens to utilize a couple of actual names to lend it a sense of realism. And yet, it is true that on February 22, 1974, a man named Sam Byck, angered and despondent about the failures in his personal and professional lives and increasingly outraged over the nightly revelations of the ongoing Watergate investigation, attempted to hijack a plane with the intention of crashing it into the White House. Needless to say, this attempt was another failure–the plot literally never got off the ground and Byck was killed by police at the airport–and was so unsuccessful that it was reported as just another hijacking attempt in the news and the full intentions of his plot were not revealed until tapes that he sent to Leonard Bernstein that he hoped would explain his actions were discovered. By then, however, people had already moved on to the next thing and his actions were quickly lost in the mists of time. Even among students of assassination attempts, successful or otherwise (the kind who revel in Sarah Jane Moore trivia), Byck’s scheme became no more than the most minor of footnotes and it is likely that if it weren’t for his mention in the score of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins”, even they might never have heard of him or what he tried to do. (And while the parallels with 9/11 are inevitable, it should be noted that the film has been in development since 1999.)

It sounds like an intriguing story, but how to tell it? The tendency when making films about such fringe characters is to either transform their lives into an oddball comedy (“Ed Wood”) or to transform the person’s life into a metaphor for the larger issue that the filmmakers want to communicate (such as reducing Larry Flynt into simply a symbol for the First Amendment). What makes this film work so well is that co-writer/director Niels Mueller has resisted the urge to utilize either of those methods and has chosen instead the far trickier approach of depicting Sam Bicke (as he has been renamed here) as simply an ordinary man whose ordinary dreams and desires have become horribly warped. At first, he seems like the
ideal vision of what an upstanding American man was supposed to be like in the mid-1970's. He is polite, idealistic and honest. He has a steady job as an office furniture salesman and is making plans to start his own tire delivery business with a friend (Don Cheadle). In his spare time, he reads the works of such self-help gurus as Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie. He is divorced from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts) but does all that he can to stay in their lives. On the surface, Bicke seems like the most perfectly normal and straitlaced person that you could ever hope to meet.

It is only after watching him for a while and allowing him to get under our skin do we gradually begin to realize that there is something off about the guy. His honesty is so single-minded that he finds himself unable to push the crappy furniture that he is supposed to sell and is shocked at the smooth patter that his boss (Jack Thompson) uses to seal the deal. The tire business begins to seem more and more like a pipe dream and his visits to his ex-wife and kids are growing increasingly strained. Beyond his personal problems, Bicke also begins to react strangely to the world around him. In the early 1970's, for example, plenty of white liberals claimed to feel a certain kinship with the Black Panthers; Bicke is no exception but instead of just writing a check, he actually goes down to their headquarters and attempts to join up himself. At the same time, the Watergate hearings are going on and as the details are being revealed, Sam is horrified to discover not only the corruption that has permeated the highest office in the land but that others are not as overtly shocked as he is. For a man who has been raised to believe that honesty and sincerity will get one far in a lifetime, to see someone who represents the opposite of those traits be hailed as the leader of the free world while he, who embodies all of them to a fault, is at the end of his tether must have come as an outrage. And as Bicke’s life spirals further out of control, he begins to increasingly focus on Nixon as his arch-enemy and begins to develop his seemingly ludicrous plan.

In portraying Bicke, something about the desperation and outrage of the character seems to have sparked something in Sean Penn and the result is one of the highpoints in a career that is already chock-full of them. His approach to portraying Bicke is fascinating because he manages to show him as a completely normal guy while quietly suggesting the darkness and despair beneath the seemingly placid surface, as though some crucial switch in his head hadn’t been flipped. Even as Bicke becomes more unhinged, Penn creates such empathy for him that you can’t help but identify with him and hope against hope that he will somehow figure out how to pull himself away from the abyss. As a result, when he does finally cross over into violence, his acts, while not overtly explicit in themselves, have a visceral impact that will startle even the most jaded moviegoer. It is almost a sort of inversion of his standout work in “Dead Man Walking”; in that film, he gave us a monster and gradually revealed the humanity while his work here gives us a human being and slowly shows the monster underneath.

There are any number of reasons to praise “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”–the gallery of standout performances from all of the actors (in only a few scenes, for example, Cheadle creates a character far more memorable and intriguing than his work in “Hotel Rwanda” and there is also a spellbinding one-scene cameo from Michael Wincott as Bicke’s estranged brother), the subtle ways in which Mueller (in an impressive directorial debut) creates an accurate period atmosphere without relying on kitsch and even a few bits of keen social satire (such as the Black Panthers sequence, which manages to be quietly funny without ever resorting to the cheap laughs). More importantly, it takes a thoughtful and penetrating look at the kind of person that most people only get to know from the headlines after they have done what they have done in a manner that most viewers will find difficult to shake. Near the end of the film, in one of his last tapes to Leonard Bernstein, Bicke remarks that “they will never forget me”. Of course, that wasn’t the case with the real-life Byck but anyone who sees this film will find it impossible to do the same.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10452&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/14/05 23:51:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/15/10 Phineas Would UnHolywood do a film praising a man who tried to kill a Dem. Pres?NEVER.Lefty Devils. 1 stars
10/14/09 R.W. Welch Slow but pretty well done overall. C+ 3 stars
1/15/08 Pote Penn in form in interesting character study 4 stars
12/03/07 mr.mike brings to mind "taxi driver" and "the parallax view" 4 stars
2/21/06 Annie G Drags at times, but, overall, a good movie. 4 stars
11/21/05 tatum A stunning film and performance 5 stars
7/09/05 John Bale A riveting performance by Penn as the disturbed loser of the American Dream 5 stars
6/25/05 Kankasaur Bicke is to Bickle as Wile E. Coyote is to Count Dracula. 5 stars
6/22/05 Phil M. Aficionado "Bravo" debut effort by Mueller; a gem by Penn. Stark, compelling, well-paced, smart 5 stars
5/28/05 MLW Touching movie, but there is no core. The heart of Bicke is nihilisitic in the end. 4 stars
3/04/05 Kathy ter Plugg "lock up all 'loners'? Serious EricD? Fart humor is looking better and better! 3 stars
3/04/05 John Fraser this film should have been nominated for an Oscar 5 stars
2/12/05 jcjs wonderful 5 stars
2/11/05 Heather Purplethorne Catchy title, but unfortunately, all downhill from there. 2 stars
2/01/05 Robert Pfeifer Sean Penn was brilliant !!!! 5 stars
1/08/05 Jim The Movie Freak Great film with a phenomenal performance by Penn who's at the top of his game like Eastwood 5 stars
12/16/04 Mike V It's a fine movie but it's Taxi Driver. Penn is great though. 4 stars
9/20/04 denny penn was once again excellent; bick was edgy but not worthy of comparison to taxi driver 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  29-Dec-2004 (R)
  DVD: 26-Apr-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  09-Jun-2005


Directed by
  Niels Mueller

Written by
  Niels Mueller
  Kevin Kennedy

Cast
  Sean Penn
  Naomi Watts
  Don Cheadle
  Jack Thompson
  Brad Henke
  Jared Dorrance



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